Travel Lens: Don George’s World

From climbing Kilimanjaro and contemplating the magic of Uluru to exploring the jungles of Cambodia and the backcountry temples of Shikoku, legendary travel writer and editor Don George has seen the better part of our planet.

Here’s a look at the world and all that’s in it through his unique lens:

Leslie Trew Magraw: Where do you call home? Why, out of every place in the world, do you choose to make your home there?

Don George: My physical home is in Piedmont, California, a suburb of San Francisco that feels to me like a New England village plopped down in Northern California.

I love it because it combines my roots—I grew up in a town of 10,000 in Connecticut—with the region where I feel most intellectually and spiritually at home, which is the beautiful, bountiful Bay Area.

But in a deeper sense, I feel that I carry the people and the places, the creations and the connections, that matter the most to me inside of myself. And that is home, wherever I may be.

Is there a place, country, or region that draws you back again and again?

Ah, there are many!

Connecticut, where I lived for the first 21 years of my life, and the rest of New England, because the landscapes and the characters there are such a deep part of me.

Japan, of course, because it’s such an intimately interwoven part of my life at this point: My wife is Japanese, and we raised our two children bilingually and biculturally. Japan threads through me like silk threads in a kimono now.

And France, because that’s the place that changed my life, and because the preoccupations I find there—a sensual celebration of life combined with an intellectual appreciation of art and ideas—so profoundly resonate with my own.

Why is travel important? How has it changed you?

Well, I’ve written a book about that! It’s called The Way of Wanderlust, and it’s a selection of my best stories and essays from 40 years of world-wandering.

In the introduction to that collection, I call myself a “travel evangelist,” and I really do believe that: Travel is my religion, because I think travel makes us bigger, broader, more open-minded and open-hearted people. It makes us more keenly appreciative of every moment in our lives and of the vast mosaic of beliefs, creations, values, livelihoods, landscapes, and species that compose Earth.

In this sense I think travel is the planet’s best hope for paving a pathway to shared understanding, respect, and peace.

Can you remember a specific time in your travels that renewed your faith in humanity? 

I’m especially adept at getting into trouble on the road, so on just about every trip, I put humanity to the test. And every time so far it has come through with flying colors.

This was precisely the inspiration for the first literary anthology I created when I was global travel editor at Lonely Planet: We called it The Kindness of Strangers, and it presented some 30 stories of unexpected kindness around the world. While I love each of the ten collections I’ve edited for Lonely Planet, that one remains the closest to my heart.

One of my most dramatic stories is the one I wrote about in the introduction to that book:

When I first encounter a city, I love to get to know it by roaming about. On my first visit to Cairo, I was wandering in this way and I got completely lost.

I finally ended up in a visibly impoverished, claustrophobic neighborhood where I was almost stepping over people who were sitting surlily in their stoops and eyeing my watch and wallet.

When I’d just about relinquished hope of getting out intact, a young boy appeared out of nowhere, and without a word took me by the hand and guided me back to a main square I recognized. I turned around in my exultation and when I turned back to thank him, he’d disappeared into the crowd.

What’s your favorite island getaway?

There are so many islands where I’ve had special experiences—Carriacou in the Caribbean, Delos and Crete in Greece, Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Blessed Bali! Any of the Hawaiian islands. And of course Shikoku, my wife’s home island in Japan.

Are you a beach person or a mountains person? 

I’m definitely a beach person. I love the ocean, and palm trees, and soft sand. A good beach—with a soft breeze clacking the palm fronds, and the salty scent of the sea, and the swash of the waves—is heaven for me.

What do you never leave home without when you’re on the road? 

A flashlight!

You’re a long-time travel editor. What’s the most common mistake writers make? What’s the recipe for a good story? 

During 35 years of editing, I’d have to say the most common mistake writers make has remained pretty much the same: They don’t know what the point of their story is, what they want the reader to take away.

That point should be the goal, the destination, of the story, but if you don’t know what it is, there’s no way you’re going to get there—or take your reader there.

I’d say the recipe for a good story is essentially this: Ask yourself what was the most important lesson you learned from a trip, and how you learned it. If you can isolate the most important steps in the journey that took you to that lesson, and then re-create those steps so vividly that a reader who didn’t experience them can live them through your words, you’ve got a successful story.

And then, to really make your story stand out, ask yourself what the larger meaning of that lesson was, what it taught you about life.

What do you do to connect with locals and seek out authentic experiences when you’re traveling? 

I approach people with innocence and enthusiasm, and I ask a lot of questions.

Knowing that I’m going to write about an experience makes me live that experience more keenly—and it also makes me take risks I wouldn’t otherwise take, usually with excellent (if sometimes embarrassing) results!

Who are your favorite travel writers and why?

My personal pantheon includes Peter Matthiessen, Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, John McPhee, Tim Cahill, and Pico Iyer.

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I love all these writers because they’re thoughtful prose stylists who attend to both the outer journey and the inner journey; they describe their experiences with precision and vivacity, and they reflect on—and impart—the larger meaning of those experiences.

What’s one of the most surprising assignments you’ve gone on? Tell us about it. 

I’ve been very, very lucky that for most of my professional life, Don George the travel writer has been sent out on assignment by Don George the travel editor. So I’ve gotten some pretty amazing assignments.

The one that comes to mind immediately because it’s so recent is the three days I spent in a very simple village in rural Cambodia, staying in a stilt home with a family and scrambling over magnificent ruins in the dripping jungle. It was totally transforming.

You’ve been working with National Geographic Traveler for years. What’s your favorite “Nat Geo moment”?

This is going to be an unexpected answer, and perhaps the reason why it’s occurring to me is because I’m in Kyoto about to embark on a two-week tour of Japan as a National Geographic Expeditions lecturer—but here’s the Nat Geo moment that’s coming to mind.

On my last Expeditions trip, I gave a lecture called “Keys to Becoming Comfortable with Japanese Culture.” One of the things I talked about was the quintessential importance of harmony in Japan, and the related importance of saving face and avoiding confrontation. I’d mentioned along the way that in almost 40 years of experience with Japan, I had hardly ever heard the word “no” spoken. To the Japanese, “no” seems so rudely final, so inflexible.

This is very hard for Americans—who aren’t very shy about saying no—to believe. But a mere 15 minutes after I’d given that lecture, when we were gathered in a hotel lobby, one of the travelers complained of thirst. We searched for a water fountain and couldn’t find one, so I accompanied her to the front desk and asked one of the young, cheery clerks in Japanese, “Is there a water fountain here?”

Now, this is a pretty easy question. There either is or there isn’t a water fountain. But when I asked the question, the clerk’s lovely face darkened, her mouth tightened, and her brow furrowed in intense concentration. She seemed on the verge of bursting into tears. Finally, after an interminable, uncomfortable silence, she drew in her breath and said, “In Japan, there are not many water fountains….”

I couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate—and astonishing—conclusion to my lecture.

Leslie Trew Magraw is editor/producer for the Intelligent Travel blog network at National Geographic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @leslietrew.

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